River Phoenix: The Boy, the man, and the legacy features, Explorers, Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast, Running on Empty, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Dogfight and My Own Private Idaho.
Born on August 23 1970, in Madras, Oregon, River Jude Phoenix’s name was taken from ‘The River of Life’ in Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha. River’s parents, John Lee Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz, followed a hippy lifestyle born in the 1960s, working as farm labourers with their roots never tied to any one place for too long.
By 1972, the Bottoms had joined the notorious cult of The Children of God, an evangelical, closed religious movement that practised ‘free love.’ Of course, we now know that this included sexualisation and abuse of its young members, including children. During the family’s time with The Children of God, River would become a big brother to Rain, followed by Joaquin and two sisters, Liberty and Summer. During their time with the cult, the family lived in Texas, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, with River busking on street corners with his younger siblings to earn money and spread the popularity of the cult.
The details of River’s cult experiences as a young boy are clouded in soundbites and hearsay; however, he made guarded comments in interviews about possible sexual experiences at a very young age.
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By 1978, the family had fled the cult and returned to the United States in poverty, living in Florida with Arlyn’s mother in a cramped house unsuitable for five children. During this time, River’s talent for music and performing began to shine as he participated in local talent competitions, TV commercials, and gigs. Here River’s magnetic personality, talent and looks didn’t go unnoticed. This attention resulted in more offers of substantial roles in TV and film, leading the family to move to California.
It wasn’t long before River was cast in his first major film, Explorers, alongside a fellow rising star Ethan Hawke. However, despite the high production values, Explorers never took off at the box office as it faced the might of Back to the Future and Live Aid on its release. But the disappointing launch of Explorers opened the door to further Hollywood roles with Stand by Me River’s next project. This film would see River earn the title of ‘teen idol.’ But despite the pin-up looks, it was also clear River held a rare talent – one found in golden age stars like James Dean, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Here River’s sheer magnetism lit up the silver screen and paved the way for a group of young and exciting actors in 80s Hollywood, including Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio.
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River challenged the foundations of masculinity like Clift and Dean, his passion for animal welfare, veganism, equality, and the environment reinventing the teen idol. However, River’s light was to burn bright but fast, as he died at twenty-three on October 31, 1993, outside the Viper Club in Los Angeles. His younger brother Joaquin, sister Rain, and girlfriend Samantha Mathis were at his side as his young body failed through a mixture of prescription drugs, cocaine and morphine. The shockwave that followed his death would equal the loss of James Dean, as Hollywood mourned a rare talent. At the same time, a global outpouring of grief demonstrated just how bright River’s talent, ideology, and beauty had been.
River left behind an enviable body of work comprising twenty-four films and television appearances. River Phoenix changed Hollywood and, more importantly, the role of young men on screen; his legacy forever burnt into the fabric of modern cinema.
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Joe Dante’s 1985 space adventure never managed to rise to the top of the cinema charts, its fated release colliding with a week that saw Back to the Future and the Live Aid concert reign supreme. However, since its cinematic flop, Explorers has continued to gain a cult following through VHS, TV showings and now Blu-ray and streaming. River was cast as the nerdy Wolfgang Muller, a boy who conducted scientific experiments in his dad’s workshop. Meanwhile, the up-and-coming Ethan Hawke was cast as the regular all-American kid hero.
Early into the production, it was clear to the director that River was different to the young actors surrounding him. His passion for his character was almost excessive, while his lack of formal education often acted as a barrier on set. However, River’s drive for success was unstoppable, as was his passion for embodying his role. Explorers mix of pop culture and science fiction may have flopped, but its warm, humour-driven script is still a joy to watch. But watch closely, and you can see a young River learning his craft, soaking up every detail of his character until he became Wolfgang Muller.
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Stand by Me (1986)
Based on the Stephen King novella ‘The Body, ‘ Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me is one of the greatest coming-of-age films ever made. Stand By Me is a love letter to childhood freedom, friendship and adventure. Yet it is also a layered and complex exploration of grief, loss and change as the child slowly becomes a teenager and life begins to lose its innocent magic.
River turned fifteen on the set of Stand by Me, his coming-of-age journey reflecting that of his character. Here River used his own experience of puberty to define Chris Chambers and his role within the group. River would portray Chambers as a sensitive yet scared leader who was internally struggling with his identity, place and purpose. In many ways, Chris Chambers is River Phoenix, the character mirroring River’s lived experience and vulnerability. This trait would continue to follow River’s acting path, his best roles holding a mirror to his own insecurities, doubts, strengths and fears.
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Stand by Me was not an instant success at the box office; in fact, it struggled to make it to many screens on its original release. However, with Reiner’s sublime direction and a stunning young cast, Stand by Me soon found its feet as an instant and undeniable classic of modern cinema. Here Reiner’s delicate, energetic, touching, and melancholic exploration of a slowly vanishing childhood is stunning. Stand by Me is the final summer of childhood innocence for a group of boys on the verge of adolescence. Here the emotion, fear and joy of River’s past and present collide on screen for all to see in a performance that continues to send a shiver down my spine.
The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Peter Weir’s 1986 adaptation of The Mosquito Coast would place the young River alongside the on-screen royalty of Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren in a story of fanaticism, love and fear. Here Ford’s Allie Fox drags his family across South America in search of a dream that never truly exists. Meanwhile, his colonial views clash with a belief in environmentalism and change as his son (River) tries to navigate the gap between his father’s rhetoric and emotions.
However, River was not the first choice for Charlie; in fact, Peter Weir initially favoured Wil Wheaton for the role. But, when Weir learnt of River’s past living in Latin America and his family travel history, the parallels between the character and actor couldn’t be ignored. Here, River again embodied the lived experience of young Charlie Fox, his performance matching the powerhouse of Ford and Mirren. Meanwhile, for River, love would come from the jungle as Martha Plimpton entered his life, their loving relationship continuing right up to his death.
READ MORE: The Mosquito Coast (Apple TV)
Running on Empty (1988)
The Popes have been living a secret life since the 1960s, and their children – especially the oldest Danny (Phoenix), have never known anything different. Danny’s life is a rollercoaster of perpetual hiding, the stability of life never guaranteed. The actions of his campaigning parents during the 60s still haunt every moment in Danny’s life. However, as he grows and his musical talent shines through, an opportunity for change rears its head. But this change will forever change the family unit.
Once again, River found himself cast in a picture that held comparisons with his own life. Here the need to break free from parental control was coupled with a longing for the comfort and safety of the family at any cost. However, within his delicate, intelligent, and scene-stealing portrait of Danny, River also showcased his leading man abilities. Here River would shake off the cocoon of his teenage life only to emerge as an Oscar contender. Much of this was due to the director Sydney Lumet allowing River to spread his wings after two distinctly average teen idol films, Jimmy Reardon and Little Nikita.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
I know what you are thinking, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade isn’t a River Phoenix film; he was only in the first 20 minutes”. You may be correct, but The Last Crusade was also a defining performance for River. Why? I hear you ask.
First, it was River’s only significant action role, and second, his interpretation of the young Indiana Jones was as near to perfect as you can get. River made the character his own; his young Indie layered with delightful references to Harrison Ford’s performance while oozing youthful energy and wide-eyed wonder. Therefore, while his on-screen presence was short, River single-handedly launched the third Indiana Jones instalment in a way no other actor could have managed. Unfortunately, we never saw more of him as the whip-cracking young scout, as this performance had prequel written all over it.
Dogfight was labelled a romance on release, but its themes run much deeper. The year is 1963, and Eddie Birdlace (Phoenix) is enjoying a final night in San Francisco before military service in Vietnam. As the evening progresses, Eddie’s marine buddies opt to play a game of dogfight, otherwise known as who can pick up the ugliest girl in town. However, as Eddie reluctantly agrees to play, events quickly progress from the game to genuine sexual attraction as he meets Lili Taylor’s Rose.
River embodies the character of a young marine while also delivering a performance full of complexity within a role that could quickly become stereotypical. However, in the hands of Phoenix, we get a masterclass in nuance. The fear of the unknown matches the immaturity of Birdlace, the innocent boy hiding within the body of a man. As Rose offers a safety blanket and security, Phoenix’s Birdlace isn’t sure of himself, his role, or the mission he is about to embark on. Here, Birdlace learns that love and attraction are based on more than pure image. And that life has a clever way of throwing us a lifeline even when we fear its outcomes.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Gus Van Sant’s 1991 masterpiece remains one of the most nuanced cinematic portraits of isolation, wilderness and unrequited love committed to celluloid. Here, we find Hal’s journey from Shakespeare’s Henry IV dovetailed with the American road trip drama through River’s drifter, Mike and Reeves slumming it rich boy Scott. Meanwhile, the urban bustle of Portland and the lives of its young rent boys are intercut with the wild and open landscapes of rural Oregon, the western, road movie, and Shakespeare.
Following Mala Noche (1985) and Drug Store Cowboy (1989), Gus Vant Sant’s Idaho continued the 90s reinvention of the road movie while pushing indie cinema as far as it would go in exploring sexuality, male identity and hustling. For River and Keanu, Idaho was a considerable risk; after all, this was a film centred around themes that would actively subvert their teen idol status. But for both, it was also an opportunity to stamp their names on the world of independent cinema while immersing themselves in remote communities failed by the American dream.
In defining his character, River’s commitment to the method approach would see him spend several nights on Portland’s streets, talking with the rent boys who earned a trade in the shadows. For River, Mike would finally give these hidden young men a voice, resulting in one of the finest performances I have ever seen.
River’s Mike is lost, lonely and yet stuck in the wildness surrounding him. Unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Mike wishes for a home that doesn’t exist and an unreachable love with no foundations. He is a drifter caught in a void between youth and adulthood where his body and looks are his only income. River’s performance alongside Reeve’s was Oscar-worthy in every sense. Yet, My Own Private Idaho would prove too risky for Hollywood’s academy. Idaho takes us on an unforgettable journey into love, hurt, companionship, separation, wealth and poverty. The result is one of the past forty years’ most beautiful and complex films and the most groundbreaking movie of River’s career.